Sunday, 2 June 2013

Another Irish Eureka moment - and another murder

This can't keep happening to me. Last year I had a book published about the murder of my three times great grandmother in Perthshire, Scotland, a story which gained some notoriety as being the longest unsolved murder case by a modern police force in the UK (see As a family historian I deemed it an extraordinary episode, certainly something never likely to be found in my tree again, and as such I wrote the book to let my kids have an example to read in years to come of the sorts of adversity our ancestors had to go through to allow us to exist in the present day. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would find another murder in the family - and yet, last night, not only did I do just that - this time in Ireland - but in the space of a couple of hours I have already identified fourteen new family members.

Coincidentally, I gave a talk at South Ayrshire History and Family History Fair in Troon yesterday about the use of online Irish sources for genealogical research. My opening point was that Irish research is not like Scottish research. Certainly within the Scottish civil registration period a significant amount of detail is handed to us on a plate, with our records here being so comprehensive. Ireland, on the other hand, has a double whammy of problems - less detail in the records to start with, and the possibility that many significant resources no longer exist, such as the censuses. It can still be done - but you may need to take a much more long winded approach!

So how did I find out about the murder? Believe it or not, I was looking at the death of my four times great grandfather, John BILL from the parish of Kilbride, County Antrim, in 1900, and trying to identify where his townland was - Ballyvoy. Virtually every list of townlands online states that Ballyvoy is by Ballycastle, to the north of the county, but that did not make sense in the context of what I was examining. All the family events I had been consulting were in Kilbride parish, near Ballyclare. I finally resolved it by consulting the Belfast Newsletter newspaper, available via the National Library of Scotland platform in the British Library 19th Century Newspaper Collection, which noted a sale in Kilbride within the townland of Ballyvoy, aka Duncansland - the latter being the name it normally went by. So he was from Kilbride parish after all, just outside of Doagh in Ballyvoy/Duncansland. From this I then found John listed in Griffith's Valuation, incorrectly recorded under the name of BELL, not BILL. This name error was in fact why I had previously taken so long to get anywhere with this family, for John's granddaughter, my 2 x great grandmother Elizabeth, had been recorded as BELL also in her marriage record, which had led to my brick wall for so long (I won't go into how I discovered the name BILL to be correct, or I'll be here all day!).

So having found John in Griffith's, I then found him in a probate entry from the wills calendars now at the NAI portal at (don't always assume that northerners can only be found on the PRONI equivalent at - it only covers the northern probate districts, but you could prove wills in Dublin also). I decided to go through the Valuation Revision books on the PRONI website. It noted that in 1902, two years after his death, a Mary BILL had taken occupancy of his property in Duncansland. Was she a second wife perhaps? A consultation of the 1901 and 1911 censuses revealed that she was way too young to be so. Perhaps a daughter then? With her in the house in 1901 was a 16 year old son, Robert BILL, and there again in 1911. Surmising he was of the right age for military service, I searched for a Robert BILL on the First World War Soldiers Wills collection on the NAI portal, and found he had indeed died in the war, and had left a will. I then turned to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at It transpired from this site Robert was in fact the son of a Frank BILL and and his wife Mary COBAIN.

Bear with me! I now looked on Emerald Ancestors ( for a Frank BILL marrying a Mary, and found one in Kilbride in 1883, although he was recorded under the name of Francis BILL. The following year Robert was then born. It seemed clear that Frank was a son of John, and the fact that Mary took John's property, and not Frank, was soon explained by the fact that Frank had in fact died in 1899, a year before his father. At this point I decided to search for Francis in the Belfast Newsletter. And then all hell broke loose...

I found Francis - he was a witness to a trial in 1875 for what has become known in the history of Ulster as the Templepatrick Murder of 1874. Not only was Francis there, but virtually every member of the BILL family who seemed to exist in Doagh at that time - brothers, sisters, his father, his mother, his uncle, cousins, all were interrogated at the trial. Why so much interest in them? For the simple fact that Francis' brother William was accused of murdering his cousin Margaret LANGTRY. The information I had already gathered on Elizabeth and her grandfather John is more than corroborated from the article, which gives me details of everything from the food they ate, the work they did, even words that they spoke (including some good Ulsterisms).

If this seems a long winded research route, it is because it is! That's how Irish research is often done, and I have other examples equally as complex. But therein lies another major fact about Irish research - despite the tragedy you may encounter, it can still be a lot more fun.

Virtually every website I mentioned in my talk yesterday was used to resolve this issue (and I am only now getting started). For more details on how to find your Irish ancestors, my latest book is Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet, from Pen and Sword.

You can read the reviews at and can purchase the book from There is nothing in the book which I don't use myself - and it might just help you shatter a few brick walls like the one I have just described!



  1. Fascinating Chris! Are you going to publish this as an eBook? Please, do so and when you do include formats that my Kindle can read.

  2. No idea just yet - have already taken the line back much further now and found another major story too! Currently writing an article for Your Family Tree on it, should be out next month or two!